The Limits Of Pax Americana

America's post-Cold War strategy failed with Russia — will it fail to limit Beijing's aggressiveness too?

George Walden

When Putin’s personality cult was on the rise I heard a joke in Moscow. Deciding he would be buried in Jerusalem, he sends a flunkey to fix it. No problem with the Israelis or Palestinians, the fellow reports, but the tomb would be expensive: a million dollars. “A million dollars!”, Putin explodes, “for three days?”

Mandelbaum begins and ends his litany of American post-Cold War policy failures with China, then Russia, a culture so irredeemably sunk in its past that for older folk — and some younger — its leader incarnates something close to a Second Coming.

A crumbling empire with centuries of failure behind it — first serfdom, then Communism — Moscow needed sensitive handling, but didn’t get it. The main culprit, Mandelbaum argues, was Bill Clinton. At first all was well. George H.W. Bush cannily stayed out of the USSR’s collapse. Keen on a “strategic alliance with Russian reform”, and with a country “too nuclear to fail”, Clinton began by working as well as you could with Yeltsin, the half-sozzled leader of a semi-mafia state, and there was progress in democratisation and market reform.

What damaged America’s Russia policy irretrievably, Mandelbaum believes, was Clinton’s line on Nato. During discussions on German reunification, the previous presidency had explicitly promised Moscow that Nato would not be expanded eastwards. Nor was the White House policy arrived at in orderly executive fashion: William Perry, the Defence Secretary, opposed it, and learned of the decision after Clinton had taken it.

Like Perry and his hard-nosed defence staff at the time, Mandelbaum argues in persuasive detail that the extension brought no military gain. Overstatement is not his style, nor is he soft on Russia, yet he describes Clinton’s move as “one of the greatest blunders in the history of US foreign policy.”

Not only Yeltsin but the Russian opposition felt deceived, and Nato’s bungled handling of the Ukrainian and Georgian candidacies didn’t help. Hard though it is to admit grounds for Russian neurosis under Putin, how clever was it to feed it? In Mandelbaum’s words, “Peace in Europe came to rest not on Russian consent but on Russian weakness; and ultimately Russia felt strong enough to violate that peace.”

He is equally hard on Clinton’s effort to link trade and reform in China — another tough-sounding but misguided strategy. The Chinese prime minister, Li Peng, a nasty piece of work prominent in the Tiananmen massacre, duly declined (“China will never accept the American concept of human rights”). And under US business pressure Clinton duly retreated.

The fallback strategy was the more realistic “economic missionary” position: the contention that trade itself would spread democracy, something that has worked well enough to get Xi Jinping stamping out sparks of freedom. As to China’s foreign and defence policy, Mandelbaum does not deny the right of a renascent great power to develop its navy to assert itself in the Pacific and defend its trade routes, as Britain herself did.

What does matter are Beijing’s aims and aggressiveness, as its vaunted “peaceful rise” fades. The question now, Mandelbaum writes, is whether China’s relative economic weakening will produce harsher human rights and foreign policy positions. The evidence suggests it will. Mao’s “serious warnings” to the US over Taiwan were invariably followed by nothing. With Beijing’s challenge over the South China Sea, we are not so sure.

The problem is what has been called the country’s “Great Power autism” in relations with smaller states. The attitude was not unknown in our own heyday, but a resurgent, permanently aggrieved and hugely ambitious China seeking to reimpose tributary status on its neighbours is a more perilous business.

A leitmotif of the book is that America’s post-Cold War strategy was initially concerned less with protecting US interests than with vindicating its values. Hence humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and the appearance of the term “mission creep”, as attempts at nation-building tended to follow. There could be temporary successes in alleviating suffering, but Mandelbaum is unsentimental: whether in China and Russia, or in military interventions in failing states, ultimately all were failures. “We got no dog in that fight,” James Baker, Secretary of State to George H.W. Bush, said of Bosnia.

The most resounding disaster was of course Iraq. On terror in general and 9/11 in particular, the US under Clinton gravely underestimated the dangers, and under George W. Bush it overreacted. Mandelbaum is succinct: “Imagination failed — then ran wild.”

Having met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad with Lord Carrington in 1980, and been briefed about his habit of personally shooting ministers, I would add to the book’s powerful account of the US intelligence lapses (shared by other countries) that reliable intelligence on a gangster regime is by its nature hard to come by: the rational bureaucratic structure to be penetrated isn’t there.

In Israel, Obama’s devotion to “peace orthodoxy” has reached a point where “the peace process became an obstacle to peace”, through a failure to recognise that a change of Palestinian political culture is needed. Another problem has been Obama’s chosen instrument for a settlement: “It was a single public official: himself.”

In Iran, reversing four decades of US policy, he surrendered on nuclear enrichment, when unlike North Korea there were tougher options. Foolishly conciliatory towards North Korea itself, the billion dollars he spent in aid achieved nothing.

Though his take on Clinton and Obama is unflattering, Mandelbaum is refreshingly non-partisan. Nor is there any suggestion that the ills of the world can be traced to America’s door. Instead, we have a realism somewhere between cool and stark. Beyond all the miscalculations and excesses of American zeal, there is an underlying refrain: that the human material for the transformations it aimed at abroad was lacking.

In Iraq, he notes, for all America’s sacrifice in the democratic cause, the al-Maliki Shia leadership came down to “one person, one family, one sect”. Beyond the Middle East the same is true in different forms, not least Russia, where a culture of obscurantism and official mendacity has brought us its Second Coming.

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